Steam engines and sliding doors: trains in books, music and film

I like trains. I used to travel by train several times a week. I even lived right next to a railway line. There’s something romantic about trains, which I just don’t feel about other forms of transport. Here are some of my favourite books, films, TV programmes and songs featuring trains.

Books:

  • The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit is about three children who move from their comfortable house to the countryside when their father is wrongly imprisoned. The railway becomes an important part of their lives. The book was adapted into a wonderful film.
  • Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett is a Discworld novel which sees Moist von Lipwig – who has already reluctantly reorganised the Mint and the Post Office of Ankh-Morpork – taking on the railway. I have only read it once but I plan to re-read.
  • The Harry Potter books by J K Rowling have some important scenes set on the Hogwarts Express, the old-fashioned steam train which takes students from London to Scotland. It’s interesting that the train, a Muggle invention, was appropriated by the wizarding world. West Coast Railways supplied the train for the films.
  • The Railhead trilogy by Philip Reeve is set in the far future, when sentient trains cross the galaxy, with stations on every planet. Even though the trains are so advanced and are beings with their own personalities, there is still a romance to the railway.

Songs:

  • Trans Europe Express by Kraftwerk is an album which explores European travel, most notably the title song which celebrates the rail service which linked several countries. You can see the group enjoying a train journey in the music video.
  • ‘Shunt’ by Recoil, which closes the album Unsound Methods, begins slow and menacing, evoking a train beginning its journey, perhaps through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Then the pace speeds up until it sounds like the train is going so fast it might be out of control. The lyrics: ‘There’s blood on the line.’
  • ‘Blue Piccadilly’ by The Feeling, from the album 12 Stops and Home, is a break-up song which refers to the Piccadilly tube line. The image on the album cover is a little bit like a ride on the Underground, but with house keys and a soft-boiled egg.
  • ‘Steam’ by Peter Gabriel is not exactly about trains but the video is absolutely mad and includes a steam train with Peter’s face on it (screenshot below). Although, if he really was a steam train, he wouldn’t be singing ‘give me steam’ – he’d be singing ‘give me water’. But then it wouldn’t rhyme with ‘dream’.

Film/TV:

  • ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ is episode 8 of series 8 of Doctor Who. On the Orient Express – in space – a mummy appears only to its victims, who have 66 seconds to live. My favourite Doctor (Peter Capaldi) along with Clara (Jenna Coleman) and chief engineer Perkins (Frank Skinner) have to solve the mystery.
  • In the ‘Bambi’ episode of The Young Ones, Vyvyan, Rik, Mike and Neil use good old British Rail to travel to their appearance on University Challenge. We find out why you shouldn’t stick your head out of the window of a moving train. The train is also held up by Mexican bandits.
  • Chigley – from the creator of Camberwick Green and Trumpton, Gordon Murray – includes this song: ‘Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train / And I ride on the footplate there and back again / Under bridges over bridges to our destination / Puffing through the countryside there’s so much to be seen.’
  • Sliding Doors is an unusual rom-com in which a split-second difference – which leads to Gwyneth Paltrow’s character missing the tube in one timeline, and catching it in the other – gives us two parallel universes. I really like the film and have seen it at least three times.

Do you have any favourite train-based media? Do you like trains? Let me know!

11 thoughts on “Steam engines and sliding doors: trains in books, music and film”

  1. I’m a fan of Sliding Doors too.
    I’d have to add the 2017 film version of Murder on the Orient Express since watching that was as close as I’ll ever get to travelling in such lavish style!
    I travel to and from work on Melbourne trains but it is a necessity rather than a luxury. Pre-Covid they were horribly overcrowded, although they are not filled to capacity at present. Face masks are still being worn on public transport in Melbourne although there is no community transmission of Covid at present, but if anyone coughs or sneezes, everyone else shudders!

    1. I’m not a Christie fan, I’m just not that keen on murder mysteries, but yes Murder on the Orient Express would be many readers’ top book with a train theme πŸ˜‰ I’ve never been on a luxurious train, although I’ve been in 1st class a couple of times on the public railways here (it’s not so different, just more leg room and comfier seat). I used to travel by train almost every day, it’s not fun at peak commuter times or when full of football fans, I suppose it’s a bit nicer at the moment while people aren’t packed in together.

      1. I can’t imagine different classes of carriages, they don’t exist in Melbourne although I believe there are different classes available on the Ghan and the Indian Pacific, which travel across and up and down Australia (more of a holiday trip).
        Funnily enough, I’m reading your review on the train on my way home from work!

        1. I think different classes of carriages should only be for fancy holiday trains and not for commuter trains, to avoid everyone being crammed into standard class while 1st class is almost empty πŸ˜€

    1. Thanks! πŸ™‚ I haven’t seen Source Code but maybe I will. I can think of more films set on trains but these were just the ones I liked the most.

  2. Love this post! Mummy on the Orient Express is one of my favourite Doctor Who episodes and I have always adored The Railway Children. Good to see Chigley get a mention too!

    Other suggestions are the song Morningtown Ride by The Seekers, and the poem On The Train by Gillian Clarke πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you! That’s one of the best episodes. I re-watched it specially for this post πŸ™‚ The Railway Children is an absolute classic, although I’ve seen the film a lot more than I’ve read the book. I don’t think Chigley is quite as well-known as Camberwick Green and Trumpton, I have fond memories of watching it on video. Thanks for the suggestions, I don’t actually know them (unless I do but not by title), I will check them out.

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